James Caan: His Film Career Was Forever Identified As the Quick-Tempered Sonny Corleone in “The Godfather”

From a New York Times obit by Clyde Haberman headlined “James Caan, Actor Who Won Fame in ‘The Godfather,’ Dies at 82”:

James Caan, who built a durable film career in varied roles across six decades but was forever identified most closely with one of his earliest characters, the quick-tempered, skirt-chasing Sonny Corleone in the original “Godfather” movie, died on Wednesday.

By the time “The Godfather” was released in 1972, Mr. Caan had established himself as a young actor worth keeping an eye on. He had a meaty role in “El Dorado,” a 1966 western that starred John Wayne and Robert Mitchum. (Wayne, Mr. Caan said, cheated at chess games during breaks in the filming.)

In “The Rain People,” a 1969 movie that was his first collaboration with the director Francis Ford Coppola, he earned critical praise playing a simple-minded former football player.

“Brian’s Song” (1971), an early made-for-television movie, brought him to the attention of a wider audience. Based on a true story, it focused on the friendship between a Black football star, Gale Sayers of the Chicago Bears (played by Billy Dee Williams), and a white teammate, Brian Piccolo. Piccolo died of cancer in 1970 at 26, and Mr. Caan played him with verve and humor in an unabashedly three-hanky film.

Then came Mr. Coppola’s “Godfather.” Initially cast as the central figure, Michael Corleone — the role ultimately played by Al Pacino — Mr. Caan ended up playing Sonny, quick to anger and ultimately gunned down on a causeway. He threw himself into the role so fully that for years, he said, strangers would say things to him like “Hey, don’t go through that tollbooth again.”

Some even mistook him for a real mobster. “I’ve been accused so many times,” he said in 2004. “I won ‘Italian of the Year’ twice in New York, and I’m not Italian.”

He was in fact Jewish, reared in Sunnyside, Queens, by German-born parents. “I was denied in a country club once,” he said. “Oh, yeah, the guy sat in front of the board and he says, ‘No, no, he’s a wiseguy, been downtown. He’s a made guy.’ I thought, ‘What, are you out of your mind?’ ”

Mr. Caan received an Emmy nomination for best actor for “Brian’s Song” and an Academy Award nomination for best supporting actor for “The Godfather.” His Oscar competition included Mr. Pacino and another “Godfather” actor, Robert Duvall. The three canceled one another out, and the award went to Joel Grey for “Cabaret.”

By then, Mr. Caan’s career had kicked into high gear. The decade that followed was especially fertile. Among his roles were a love-struck sailor in “Cinderella Liberty” (1973), a self-destructive professor in “The Gambler” (1974), an anti-authority athlete in “Rollerball” (1975), a fierce World War II sergeant in “A Bridge Too Far” (1977) and a not-too-bright ex-con in “Thief” (1981), a favorite movie of his.

Not all his films received favorable notices, but with his rugged good looks and obvious smarts, his acting usually did. Reviewing “Cinderella Liberty” for The New York Times, Vincent Canby wrote: “Mr. Caan seems to be shaping up as the Paul Newman of the nineteen-seventies. An intelligent, versatile actor with a low-key but unmistakable public personality.”

Like Paul Newman, Mr. Caan tried his hand at directing. But he did so only once, with “Hide in Plain Sight” (1980), in which he also acted, playing a man searching for his children after they and their mother are brought into the government’s witness-protection program. The film fared poorly at the box office and left him disenchanted.

“Everybody wants to do ‘Rocky 9’ and ‘Airport 96’ and ‘Jaws 7,’ ” he said. “And you look and you listen, and what little idealism you have left slowly dwindles.”

In his prime, Mr. Caan had a man’s-man reputation that he savored. In interviews, he strewed four-letter words like birdseed. He earned a sixth-degree black belt in karate. He roped steers on the rodeo circuit and managed a boxer — pursuits, especially rodeo, that left him with so many stitches and screws in his shoulders and arms that the sportswriter Jim Murray once said, “Jimmy Caan was not born, he was embroidered.”

Mr. Caan also had a bad-boy reputation. He was married and divorced four times. He appeared as a character witness for an old friend from Queens who was on trial as a mobster because, he said, stand-up guys stay loyal to their pals. And he had his own brushes with the law.

The police questioned him at length in 1993 after a man fell to his death from the fire escape of a Los Angeles apartment where Mr. Caan was staying. The authorities concluded that the death was accidental, and Mr. Caan said he was asleep when it occurred.

The next year the North Hollywood police arrested him after he flashed a loaded pistol in public. He said he had done it only to break up a fight. The charges were dropped.

Along the way, he checked into a rehab center for an addiction to cocaine that began after his sister, Barbara Licker, died of leukemia in 1981. The two of them had been close — she was president of a movie production company that included James and their brother, Ronald — and her death hit him hard.

He barely worked for the next six years and wound up deep in debt. “I got into the whole lifestyle of girls and drugs and partying,” he said, adding that “you really do get caught up in it, and it’s very destructive.”

But he bounced back, starting in 1987 with the Vietnam War drama “Gardens of Stone,” another collaboration with Mr. Coppola, in which he played a tough sergeant. He then took on roles including a writer held captive by a crazed fan (played by Kathy Bates) in the box-office hit “Misery” (1990), directed by Rob Reiner and based on a novel by Stephen King; a tough but romantic mob guy in “Honeymoon in Vegas” (1992); yet another mobster in the comedy “Mickey Blue Eyes” (1999); and a cantankerous book editor in “Elf” (2003).

He also turned to television, notably the series “Las Vegas,” on which he was seen from 2003 to 2007 as the president of operations and security chief for a casino. Still, though he worked steadily, his later career lacked the incandescence of his earlier years.

Born in the Bronx, James Edmund Caan grew up in Queens, the son of Arthur Caan, a wholesale dealer of kosher meat, and Sophie (Falkenstein) Caan, a homemaker.

Street life held his interest more than classrooms did. He dropped out of several schools before settling down at Rhodes Preparatory School in Manhattan, where he graduated in 1956 at age 16.

At Michigan State University, he hoped to make the football team but failed. He switched to Hofstra University on Long Island — Mr. Coppola was a classmate — but dropped out before long. Nonetheless, his interest in acting was kindled there. He went on to study for five years at the well-regarded Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theater in Manhattan….

Mr. Caan’s early work included roles in 1960s television series like “Route 66,” “Dr. Kildare” and “Wagon Train.” Movies soon loomed, with “The Godfather” dominant.

In that film, he said, he had improvised some of his lines and actions, including two words that he did not invent but that he ushered into the vernacular.

Sonny tells Michael how hard it will be to kill the family’s enemies: “You gotta get up like this and — bada bing! — you blow their brains all over your nice Ivy League suit.”

Bada bing? Bada boom? I said that, didn’t I?” Mr. Caan said. “Or did I just say bada bing? It just came out of my mouth. I don’t know from where.”
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Also see the Washington Post obit by Adam Bernstein headlined “James Caan, who played Sonny Corleone in ‘The Godfather,’ dies at 82.”The opening grafs:

James Caan, a Hollywood leading man of the 1970s who memorably displayed his tough-guy screen presence as the trigger-happy Mafioso Sonny Corleone in “The Godfather” but who also proved, beyond his macho exterior, a versatile performer of wry expressiveness and unexpected vulnerability, died July 6 at 82.

The son of a butcher who had fled Nazi Germany, Mr. Caan grew up in the 1940s and 1950s on the knockabout streets of the outer boroughs of New York. A wiry boy, he was dubbed “Killer Caan” for his use of his fists in self-defense, and he prided himself on never losing his street-wise edge or raspy Queens accent. He remained, he said, just a “punk from Sunnyside,” even as his enigmatic smile and aura of danger propelled a Hollywood career lasting six decades and spanning more than 130 credits.

He maintained his strut and bravado off screen, earning a black belt in karate and pursuing hobbies such as powerboat racing and roping steers. “I think I can safely say,” he observed, “I was the only Jewish cowboy from New York on the professional rodeo cowboy circuit.” Admittedly headstrong and at times self-destructive, he endured the tumult of cocaine addiction and four divorces.

Film critic Roger Ebert admiringly called him “the most wound-up guy in the movies,” a description Mr. Caan did not dispute. Shortly after the box office success of “Misery” (1990), in which Mr. Caan played a novelist held captive by a hammer-wielding fan, he joked that director Rob Reiner had indulged in a sadistic game by forcing him, “the most hyper guy in Hollywood,” to perform the role tied to a bed over 15 weeks of filming.

Mr. Caan had gone into acting on an impulse, desperate to avoid “humping sides of meat from trucks to restaurants” with his father in the bitter chill of dawn. He had a talent for making people laugh, a skill he honed one summer as a Catskills resort social director, and bluffed his way into a prestigious theater training program in Manhattan, the Neighborhood Playhouse.

With his brooding good looks and coiled unpredictability, Mr. Caan won a long string of guest parts on television before entering movies. He was initially cast in action roles in the saddle, the racecar, the conning tower and the spaceship. But he showed, when given the chance, understated intelligence and sensitivity as a performer.

Reviewers praised him as a brain-damaged former jock in “The Rain People” (1969), directed by Francis Ford Coppola but little seen because studio executives lost faith in its commercial appeal. His breakout role was the terminally ill Chicago Bears running back Brian Piccolo in the television film “Brian’s Song” (1971).

The movie, which touched on interracial friendship, attracted 55 million viewers and earned Mr. Caan an Emmy nomination for best actor. The next year, Coppola tapped him to play Sonny Corleone, the eldest son of the mafia kingpin in “The Godfather.”

In a cast that included Marlon Brando as his aging father, Vito, and Al Pacino as his somber younger brother, Michael, Mr. Caan more than held his own as the coarsely sexy and hot-tempered Sonny. To get into character, Mr. Caan said he found unlikely inspiration in comedian Don Rickles and his unnerving style of “busting everybody’s chops” in vicious takedowns.

Advising Michael on how to kill a rival mobster and a corrupt police captain, he declares that “you gotta get up close, like this, and bada bing!You blow their brains all over your nice Ivy League suit.” The phrase “bada bing” was improvised by Mr. Caan and “became a mantra for mobsters and aspiring mobsters,” Vanity Fair reported in 2009, and served as the name of Tony Soprano’s strip club on the HBO show “The Sopranos.”

Sonny gets his comeuppance when he is bloodied in a battlefield’s worth of machine-gun fire while trapped in his car at a tollbooth. In a scene that took three days to film, Mr. Caan wore nearly 150 tiny explosive charges called squibs. “When they went off, it felt like I was being punched all over,” he told the London Observer. “If my hand had got in front of one, it would have blown a hole clean through. “I wouldn’t have done it,” he added, “if there hadn’t been so many girls around the set to impress.”

“The Godfather” was a commercial juggernaut, won Academy Awards including best picture, helped reinvigorate the gangster genre and was ranked behind only “Citizen Kane” on the American Film Institute list of greatest films of all time in 2007. Mr. Caan, who was nominated for best supporting actor, was inundated for decades with tollbooth jokes.

After “The Godfather,” Mr. Caan said he was rarely given a script that did not feature a pile of corpses in the first 10 minutes. Determined to avoid typecasting, he ventured into offbeat comedy with “Slither” (1973), played a sailor who winds up looking after the interracial son of a prostitute in “Cinderella Liberty” (1973), was a college English professor in debt to bookies in “The Gambler” (1974) and showed off a pleasant singing voice as theatrical showman Billy Rose in “Funny Lady” (1975), which starred Barbra Streisand as entertainer Fanny Brice….

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